Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.
~ Rousseau;
The Social Contract

Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid, not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over.
~ Sartre;
Being and Nothingness

This week three friends spoke to me about feeling released from some deeply rooted hindrance to the full expression of their being. The first person was released from a life-long sense of shame, the second experienced a kind of complete vanishing of herself during meditation, the third (a therapist) admitted needing help and actually asked for it, something he had never done before.

Although all of my friends felt liberated from their unhealthy self-representations, they all reported experiencing a terror they had never felt before. They described it as worse than a panic attack, a paralyzing apprehension, not of what might come next, but that what comes next is nothing at all. Sartre called it vertige, the dizzying sense you get standing on the edge of an abyss, the heart-stopping fear that catches in your throat as you imagine yourself taking that leap into the void. It feels like self-willed dissolution, insanity or suicide.

What happens is that we become wholly identified with our functions and characteristics, the parts that make up our “self” as persona. We forget that we are not them (the parts) and gradually invest our whole being in them, clinging to them as if our very life depended on them. We think “I am = I am x, y or z (attributes)”.

To alter what I am (even if it is to free myself from a great burden, like shame) feels like losing I am, i.e. feels like dying!

This is why a prisoner sometimes chooses to return to the prison. Over-identified with the ball and chain, the elation of freedom is eclipsed by the terror of feeling severed from what he is. But the prisoner has to die for the man to live.


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